In 1967, during the birth of the modern environmental movement, the former Princeton historian Lynn Townsend White Jr. argued that modern humankind’s environmental woes stemmed from Judeo-Christian teachings. In contrast to other religious texts, White observed, the Old Testament posits a fundamental divide between God-fearing humankind and the soulless natural world — an anthropocentric framework that had sanctioned the destructive exploitation of our planet.
Yet Fletcher Harper ’85 sees in the Bible the seeds of an environmental text. An Episcopal priest, Harper is at the forefront of a growing interfaith environmental movement that includes leaders such as Pope Francis, whose 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ calls for “swift and unified global action” to address ecological destruction and climate change.
“There’s no spiritual life that does not involve, does not start, intimately and inescapably, with the Earth,” writes Harper in his 2015 book, Greenfaith. “No Earth, no faith.”
Harper is the executive director of an interfaith coalition by the same name, Greenfaith, which seeks to mobilize religious groups for environmental causes. Among other successes, the group organized 20,000 people of faith to take part in the 2015 Global Climate March, held the day before the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
Harper’s environmentalism is rooted in Christian humanitarianism. At a time when humankind has the power to fundamentally disrupt the workings of the natural world, Harper argues that caring for “the least of these” requires caring for the Earth.
“Jesus taught that if you want to watch out for God, you watch out for those who are most vulnerable,” says Harper. “We see over and over again that the most vulnerable communities — the ones that have done the least harm to nature — get hit hardest by the consequences of environmental degradation. It’s our job to make sure that people everywhere have access to clean air, clean water, and a stable climate.”
But nature is sacred beyond its instrumental value to humans, Harper argues. God is present in nature itself. Harper believes that he felt God while mourning his father’s death on a solo camping trip in Montana. A violent hailstorm struck one night, and he sought shelter in the lee of a rock.
“At about three in the morning, I felt this deep sense of well-being,” he recalls. “I realized that I was going to be OK. I thought, ‘I can move on with my life now.’”
Before writing Greenfaith, Harper interviewed hundreds of people from a broad spectrum of religious and non-religious backgrounds, finding that nearly all of them could recall an outdoor experience they perceived as spiritual or sublime.
“Nature awakens a sense of awe at the mystery of life, a sense of wonder, a sense of humility in the face of something so much bigger than we are,” says Harper. “A sense of appreciation and of gratitude. Sometimes a sense of fear — a healthy recognition that we’re not the center of the universe.”
Some ardent fundamentalist Christians believe that destroying the planet is simply part of God’s plan, says Harper, and his movement may not be able to convince them otherwise. But he aims to reach the large numbers of people who consider themselves people of faith, but who aren’t yet active on this issue.
“We need them to get off the pews and into the streets and into voting booths,” he says.
Harper has also been pressuring Princeton to divest its endowment from fossil fuels; he’s involved with the Divest Princeton organization.
“Princeton has got to do it,” says Harper. “Statements by these large, culturally powerful institutions really matter. It’s part of this cultural mindset shift that says, ‘We’ve got to change course in a big way.’”